Russian World Cup is moving to a Latin beat

Monday , July 02, 2018 - 12:46 PM

Steven Goff

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

ST. PETERSBURG - It’s the wee hours in this northern city, and one of the last Metro rides out of the stadium-adjacent Novokrestovskaya station on the green line has departed. Inside the second-to-last car, a Spanish lesson is underway.

“Hola, cómo estás?” a pack of unshaven Argentine soccer fans - tipsy on beer and euphoric over a dramatic victory against Nigeria - say to a baby-faced male volunteer for the World Cup’s local organizing committee.

Without success, he tries repeating the phrase. The sounds and mouth movement are foreign to him. Determined to teach their eager pupil, the flag-caped Argentines try again, this time slowly enunciating each syllable.

The Russian thinks he’s got it this time.

“Hola . . . cómo . . . estás?”

The Argentines roar their approval, hugging their new friend, bouncing in unison on the brisk-moving transit and launching into a celebration of soccer and culture emblematic of a World Cup.

Russian is the host tongue at this World Cup. English is the secondary language on menus and subway signs. But Spanish is the vernacular that has saturated 11 cities and 12 venues at higher levels than anyone expected when the tournament took shape years ago.

This is very much a European World Cup, most accessible to the Germans, French, Brits and the other 10 visiting countries from the continent that qualified for the month-long competition. However, in the face of great distance and expense, the largest - and most vociferous - groups of visiting supporters have come from Latin America. Many other fans who have traveled from the United States also support Latin American teams and keep strong ancestral ties.

Except for the hosts, more tickets were bought by fans living in the United States than any other nation. That was also the case in Brazil four years ago. Because the U.S. national team failed to qualify this summer, though, the overall number plummeted about 50 percent: 196,838 in 2014 to 97,439 this year.

Those U.S. ticket-buyers seem to be backing Peru, Colombia and Mexico, which plays regularly in the United States and typically sells out U.S. stadiums.

At 74,803, Brazilians were third on the ticket-buying list. After Germany (71,687), the next four were Colombia (68,667), Mexico (65,023), Argentina (61,153) and Peru (46,212).

The Colombian and Mexican totals were higher than four years ago, even though that World Cup took place in the Americas. Argentina’s numbers were about the same as in 2014.

Rounding out the top 10 were China (42,968), Australia (37,130) and England (34,235), which saw a 40 percent decline in ticket purchases since 2014, in part because of political tensions with Russia and Brazil’s exotic appeal.

The sellout crowd for a group-stage match between Mexico and Germany in Moscow was overwhelmingly pro-Mexican. This occurred despite common, three-hour flights from Frankfurt to see the 2014 champions and pretournament favorites. The trip from Mexico City took 16 hours, required a connection and a healthy bank account.

“Since the anthem started,” goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said, “everybody knew who the home team was.”

“Cielito Lindo,” a popular Mexican song and unofficial fan anthem, became the soundtrack for Mexican supporters in Russia.

“One of the things that the Mexican national team is very well-known for is the big crowds that we are attracting,” Mexican Coach Juan Carlos Osorio, a Colombian, said in the buildup to the round-of-16 match against Brazil on Monday. “And I’m not surprised that in all the games we are basically at home.”

At least that was the case until facing Brazil, which had a slight crowd advantage during its 2-0 victory in Samara.

Portuguese-speaking Brazilians - always the bunch having the most fun, regardless of World Cup location - also arrived in force, helping loosen up typically reserved Russians. Locals pulled out smartphones on subway escalators in Moscow to record the Brazilians singing on the steep descent into the Earth. Subway cars have become sound studios.

Security officers have let them have their fun.

Eager to see their team play in a World Cup for the first time since 1982, Peruvians flooded venues and cities with their elegant jersey: white with diagonal red stripe. Even after the team’s elimination in the group stage, many fans remained in the country.

With tens of thousands of fans in attendance, the yellow of Colombia has brightened stadiums in far-off Saransk, Kazan and Samara. Their cry is omnipresent: “Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, que mi Colombia va a ganar.” (“My Colombia is going to win.”)

The white and sky blue of Argentina turned city centers and stadium plazas into distant versions of Buenos Aires and Rosario.

The terminus of a recent high-speed train to St. Petersburg from Moscow prompted a large contingent of Argentine fans to begin warming their voices for a long day and night of song and serenade.

A Canadian family of four in Nigerian jerseys exchanged friendly greetings with the evening’s adversaries. All the while, a group of Russian retirees soaked it in with amusement.

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